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from issue no. 12 - 2003

EMERGENCIES. The scourge of starvation has come to Palestine

A daily massacre

Jean Ziegler, a Swiss sociologist, comments on the new figures on malnutrition and raises the alarm about the occupied Territories in Palestine: “Here a human catastrophe is underway. The level of malnutrition in Gaza is the same as that in the poorest of the sub-Saharan countries. Interview

by Paolo Mattei

This is an absurd situation: FAO claims that the planet can feed twelve billion human beings without any problem and we are little more than six billion. This is no accident, there is no law in nature to explain this daily massacre”. Thus the Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler commented on the malnutrition figures presented on the 16 October at the XXIII Food Day and from the 2003 Report on the state of uncertainty about food in the world, published on 25 November. Ziegler, former university teacher at Grenoble, Berne and the Sorbonne has, since 1977, taught at the faculty of Economic and Social Sciences of the University of Geneva, and directs the Laboratory of Sociology of the Societies of the Third World in the same institute. And he is also special spokesman at the UN for the right to food. In this official capacity he recently caused an uproar in Israeli quarters by denouncing the food scarsity in Palestine caused by the prolonged occupation of the Territories by the Israeli army. He is the author of various books (on the subject of malnutrition his Hunger in the world explained to my son, 1999, had widespread circulation), and some months ago The privatization of the world. Owners, predators and mercenaries of the global market, (Marco Tropea Editore) was published in Italy. In it, in simple language comprehensible even to the uninitiated, Ziegler explains the contradictory dynamics of global commerce and describes its protagonists and victims.
Preparaing a meal in the village of Akot in Sudan
and food supplies in a Palestinian refugee camp in Rafah

Preparaing a meal in the village of Akot in Sudan and food supplies in a Palestinian refugee camp in Rafah

Professor, how do you evaluate the figures on hunger?
JEAN ZIGLER: According to the data of the World Bank, there are a billion two hundred thousand victims of absolute extreme poverty. Of these, 75% are peasants. It is an absurdity that the people with the responsibility for primary food production should be the principal victims of hunger. The figures for those dying of poverty and hunger are much greater than the official ones: there are more than 100,000 people who die of extreme poverty and hunger every day. A daily massacre. But also according to the figures published by specialized agencies of the UN, the deaths due to economic underdevelopment and extreme poverty in the Third World Countries were more than 58,000,000 in 2002. Hunger, thirst, epidemics and local conflicts, caused by poverty, destroy every year a number of men, women and children which is almost equal to that caused by the Second World War in the course of six years. For the people of the Third World the Third World War is already in progress.
A war that does not stop the global circulation of goods and capital …
ZIEGLER: Absolutely not. At the basis of actual capitalist globalization there is the ultraliberal dogma theorized by Adam Smith, at the end of the 18th century, and by David Ricardo, at the beginning of the 19th. According to this dogma, which one is obliged to heed, capital must be left free and liberated from all control so as to direct itself spontaneously to where its profits will be maximized. To resolve the problem of redistribution, the two philosophers theorized the “trickle-down effect”: once the “multiplication of loaves” has reached a certain level, distribution to the poor will come about almost automatically. This theory is tragically refuted every day by reality, no mechanism exists that naturally channels profits towards the most needy. In reality we are faced with a globalizing dynamic, that tends to a reductio ad unum of all differences, as Philippe Zarifian said: “Globalization corresponds to the satellite vision of the globe worked out by the managers of big businesses … It is the all-one dream of Platonic philosophers, who have never ceased to evoke it, finally made real. The all-one is the territory of capitalism made real”. The application of these visions of the world is concretely translated into poverty, hunger and death. The globalized world consists of a series of little islands of prosperity and wealth that float on an ocean of people in agony.
How does this new type of capitalism function?
ZIEGLER: The current form of globalized capitalism forces the countries of the Third World to fight among themselves to attract the productive investments controlled by foreign companies, reducing social protection, trade-union freedom and the power of negotiation of the wage-earning local people. The industrial firms “delocalize” their plant to “special zones of production” where wages are minimal and the protection of the workers non-existent. It is a course towards extreme poverty steered by an economy which exalts exacerbated individual rivalry, the precariousness of work, the fragility of social statutes, the deserving wage. That this type of economic globalized economy does not produce wellbeing for the poor of the earth is an obvious fact. Think also of financial capital’s absolute independence of the laws of space and time, which moves in a world and in cyber space virtually unified and which has made itself gradually autonomous: billions of dollars that “fluctuate” without moorings, in absolute freedom. During every working day in 2001 about a thousand billion dollars were exchanged. Of this sum only 13% corresponds to the payment of a commercial debt; 87% is pure monetary transaction which does not create any value. The virtual capital in circulation in the world is actually eighteen times superior to the value of all the goods and all the services produced in one year and available on the planet.
There is also the question of the debts which suffocate the developing countries …
ZIEGLER: And here come in the “firefighter-arsonists” of the IMF, who impose on poor countries their “plans of structural adjustment” or their “fiscal discipline”, the “budget transparency”, the privatization of industries and of national resources, the liquidation of public services such as hospitals and schools, which must be paid for, the suppression of the major part of social subsidies… An absolute fidelity (in many ways stupid, as Joseph Stiglitz has showed in his research) to the dogma of the free market, to the idea of stateless global governance, to the founding principles of the “free-market doxa” – maximization of profits, competition without limits and without protection, universalization of commercial exchange and liquidation of native cultures – which has aggravated the poverty of countries such as Niger, Guinea, Mauritania, Zambia … the IMF put into practice the free-market ideology that pretends to translate into symbolic terms the “laws of nature” which regulate economic events. It makes itself proponent of an “economic fatalim”, it assigns a fatal power to economic determinisms freeing them from all control. No government of any indebted country in the Third World has the least chance of opposing the IMF with a sovereign policy aimed first of all at satisfying the needs of its own people.
In November you launched an alarm about hunger in Palestine as well …
ZIEGLER: In Palestine there is a human catastrophe underway. The level of malnutrition in Gaza is the same as that of the poorest sub-Saharan Countries. Let me quote some figures: 22% of children under five years old suffer malnutrition and 15.6% of them suffer from anemia, which is the cause of permanent physical and mental damage. The majority of families eat once a day and often only some tea and bread. Today the number of poor has tripled since 2000. 60% of the Palestinians – 75% in Gaza, 50% in the West Bank – live under a regimen of extreme poverty; the pro capite income has halved in terms of two years ago; the survival of more than half of the Palestinian population depends exclusively on humanitarian aid. And it often happens that the aid cannot be distributed by the OGN because the delivery trucks are blocked by the army, tons of food supplies remain stationary for days until the food becomes unusable.
Liberian children queuing for food

Liberian children queuing for food

So it is because of the conflict in progress that these conditions prevail.
ZIEGLER: Yes, certainly, but underneath there is a political design. By international legislation Israel, in that it is an occupying power, has the obligation to ensure the survival of the population. Instead the continuous closures, the curfew, the military incursions do not allow the people to receive the necessary sustenance. The hindrance of movement is not only a limitation of freedom, but the effective privation of the right to be nourished and the right to health. Because of the occupation of the Territories the Palestinian people are at starvation point.
Professor, do you think that the initiative of the International Alliance against hunger promised by FAO last October may represent a step ahead in the fight against poverty in the world?
ZIEGLER: Yes, I think so, because for the first time civil society is called on to face the issue and to have its say. It is a formidable initiative, absolutely essential. It represents the hope that public opinion shall have a voice in international organizations. The alliance can do magnificent work in that direction.
So you think that international organizations are useful in combating the scourge of starvation …
ZIEGLER: Certainly. The specialized organizations of the United Nations, such as OMS, UNICEF, WFP, FAO are in general very bureaucratized but, despite that, and with some exceptions, they show great efficacy in the field and do extraordinary work. I have great admiration for the FAO, which does very difficult work for the progress and world assistance to agriculture, for its modernization.
Apart from the work of international organizations, is there some initiative that offers hope in that direnction?
ZIEGLER: Certainly. Brazil’s project “Fome zero” to combat the hunger that afflicts 22,000,000 Brazilians. It has an international dimension. Lula, as well, launched a great idea, last June at Evian: to create a world fund to combat hunger through a tax on the arms dealing, one of the most profitable in the world. This idea would above all reduce the quantity of arms for sale because the application of a fixed quota would raise the prices.

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